The history of wet felting is well known and there are many lovely stories about how felt was discovered from the lonely prophet traversing the desert to Noah and his ark with all the animals. However, the story behind needle felting is less well known and maybe slightly more mundane.
Needle felting was invented in the 1800’s with the first patent for a needlepunch machine given in 1859. These machines were originally designed to make batting and insulation from shoddy (shredded woollen garments), slaughterhouse fibres and even from soldiers’ haircuts. It was used as an industrial method to produce a felted fabric without the usual soap and water solutions. These felting mills produced felt for a diverse collection of uses such as underlay for carpets, gaskets, dust barriers and latterly for the automobile industry producing carpets for cars. The product that we know best of all is the humble tennis ball that has a complex needle felted covering with specific aero dynamic properties. The needle felting process has been bought very much up to date with the production of Kevlar body armour and tiles for the space shuttle.
It wasn’t until the 1980’s that Eleanor and David Stanwood had moved from Sonoma County, California to Martha’s Vineyard where they worked with felt makers from Belgium who owned some of the few textile mills left that still processed wool in their carding machines. Eleanor and David wanted to make a light batting for quality quilts and comforters which they marketed under the label ‘Heartfelts’. Eleanor brought home some felting needles from one of the mills and began to use the needles to make felt in a small way. Eleanor was quite an innovative artist and she developed on from the quilts to produce scarves and wraps in this new method.
Somehow these new felting needles came to the attention of the Californian textile artist Ayala Tapai. Ayala had been given a handful of needles by a friend who also gave her a sample sized needlepunch machine from an abandoned textile mill and she happily experimented with this in her kitchen. Through Ayala the process came to the attention of Danish felt artist Birgitte Krag Hansent. Birgitte had been making sculptural felt using the wet felting method. She saw straight away the possibilities of using this method in creating three dimensional structural pieces. The process soon caught on and spread across Scandinavia. Soon trolls and fairies were popping out everywhere and the craft began to cross the North Sea to the UK. Now needle felting is almost reaching the same popularity as wet felting with some wonderful examples being found in Japan.
There are numerous ways to start needle felting. The embellishing machine is one where the normal sewing machine needles are replaced by a ring of felting needles. This is good for flat felt or embellishing clothing but for three dimensional felt a felting needle held in a holder is the only solution. Felting needles come in a variety of sizes for use with different fibres and differing applications. The sizes range from 32 gauge for coarser fibres to 40 gauge for the fine detail. There are also reverse needles for creating a nap on the surface of the felt. The needle holders also range from a holder for one needle to multiple needles and some with storage space in the handle for spare needles.
My relationship with needle felt happened by accident. Having been a wet felting practitioner for about fifteen years I attended a needle felting workshop held by my Region 4 group. We had the delightful Anna Sargent trying to take us through the steps of dry felting as we all attempted to make a leprechaun face. I took an instant dislike to the craft and vowed there and then never to pick up a felting needle again.
Jump forward a few years and I had moved back to London from my home in the Cotswolds. My house had been let out while I was gone ‘up country’ and now, eight years later my London home was in a serious need of some TLC. I renovated the house from top to bottom priding myself on making sure I had sealed up every crack in the walls and skirting boards so that the draught wouldn’t come in as it had previously. Some weeks later after the builders had finally gone I was sitting in my kitchen enjoying the peace and quiet of a world without workmen. I noticed what I thought was an old sock on the floor, which moved as I stared at it. It was a mouse! Where had it come from? I tracked the hole down to where an old gas pie had once been and with the help of my husband, removed the mouse to the green pastures of Hampstead Heath, just across the road from me. It had been a very sweet mouse and it stayed in my head. Next thing I knew I had got out the felting needle I had promised myself never to pick up again and, almost like automatic writing, I was creating my own little mouse and gave him the name of Mortimer.
Now, Mortimer and I have a wonderful relationship and he has been joined by a whole menagerie and although I still love to make felt in the traditional way needle felting has taken me to some great places. I now teach regularly for the WI at Denman College in Oxfordshire, at Ardington School of Crafts also in Oxfordshire and Missenden School of Creative Arts as well as Craft Schools and museums around the country. I run workshops and give talks for Guilds such the Embroiderers’ Guild and the Spinners and Weavers Association. I do special commissions and have just finished some items for a Christmas catalogue photo shoot for an online Children’s clothes company.
My shed in the garden is my work place. My husband banished me out there as he said the house was filling up with fluff. So, I sit in my lovely insulated shed with my computer and telephone, listening to a thriller on the radio and needling away happily. I love what I do and as long as these old hands of mine can hold a felting needle I will continue, after all Mortimer will always need more friends.